Column by Shepherd Bliss
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Peter and Susan Kendall of Orinda, Northern California, are not your typical political activists. This couple really wants some peace and quiet, so they can be comfortable within their suburban home and with their backyard chickens, berries and tomatoes.
But wait! While at their home recently a siren-pitched, shrieking scream interrupted that serenity—a leaf blower, which some call a debris blower, since it kicks up far more than leaves. The couple had bought three different kinds of leaf blowers, not to use, but to demonstrate how much noise and air pollution they make, even the allegedly quieter ones.
The Kendalls founded Quiet Orinda in 2009 in order to educate their neighbors about the multiple hazards of leaf blower pollution and gather support for taking defensive actions.
Over a dozen people, mainly from around California, came to an afternoon summit on June 26 to coordinate efforts against blower hazards. New Yorker magazine flew in a staff writer from Brooklyn to cover the potentially-historic gathering. He spent the weekend interviewing the Kendalls and others. He accompanied them as they passed out information and engaged people at the local otutside farmers market.
Susan Kendall greeted her guests warmly at the door of her neat, modest home and told stories of their hometown efforts. “We think we’ve been making an impact,” she noted, though she also described resistance. “I am willing to talk to strangers about this issue in our grassroots campaign. It does seem quieter than before we started explaining to others what we have learned,” she added.
On their small deck Peter Kendall opened the summit convened to found an umbrella group. He spoke of the benefits of sharing resources and expertise. Kendall related their efforts in this town of some 17,500 people and dealing with the “pro-blow crowd.” They have already pulled together a local group, established the website www.quietorinda.com, and created a short film that premiered in May at the California Documentary Film Festival.
The growing movement’s young grandmother, Diane Wolfberg, then spoke. She works with Zero Air Pollution (ZAP) in Los Angeles, which began organizing in l996 and successfully pressured the Los Angeles City Council to pass a partial leaf blower ban in l997.
Wolfberg emphasized that blowers are primarily a health and safety issue and that restrictions are essential for the common good. Given the lobby of the powerful blower manufacturers, she described the struggle as a David and Goliath one. ZAP’s website is www.zapla.org.
A health scientist with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, David Lighthall, Ph.D., spoke just for himself. He summarized a large body of “empirical evidence” about how hazardous leaf blowers are. “The benefits (of blowers) are less than the risks,” he noted. “There is a high ratio of harm to benefit. The dust kicked up has a powerful mix that extends risks, especially to people with compromised immune systems.”
Dr. Lighthall described “a perfect storm of regulatory failure here” and called for enforcing the Clean Air Act. He was particularly concerned about the impact of blowers on respiratory diseases such as asthma.
Among the many documents circulated at the meeting was a Feb. 24, 2010, letter from the Executive Officer of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Jack Broadbent, who noted, “The Air District recommends that leaf blowers not be used in local communities to avoid causing difficulty for people with breathing difficulties.”
Psychiatrist Michael Kron, M.D., contended that “leaf blowers are a health problem written large.” He highlighted some of the multiple health consequences of particulate matter kicked up by blowers, especially with respect to how they endanger vulnerable children whose lungs are developing.
Workers who use leaf blowers, Dr. Kron contended, are like coal miners who breathe in toxic dust that causes black lung disease. He described these workers as having a hazardous job.
Following the gathering, there was a flurry of emails between some of the participants, most of whom were meeting each other for the first time. “One thing I cannot stop thinking about is the injustice perpetrated on the hard-working gardeners,” wrote Peter Kendall. “They desperately need the money, and someone needs to advocate for their health. This might be one of our missions – beyond just improving our communities. Keeping these people employed, while giving them safer tools and time to do yard maintenance, is clearly the right thing to do.”
Steve Davies of Maryland was scheduled to speak about his attempts since 2008 in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park to restrict leaf blowers. However, he faced transportation difficulties and did not arrive. His experiences are available at www.greenourcity.org.
Marin County cities Mill Valley, Belvedere, and Tiburon already restrict leaf blowers. Though no Sonoma, Napa, or Mendocino County town currently restricts them, individuals and groups in Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Sonoma, and Ukiah are among those seeking healthy remedies to their gross pollution.
In my hometown, Sebastopol, citizens complained to various City Council members about their concerns and in November, 2009, now Vice Mayor Guy Wilson suggested a blower ordinance. At numerous Council meetings since then, and at a June 6 Small Town Hall Forum, many residents spoke in favor of a ban. It is currently scheduled to come before the Council in November.
One Sebastopol resident, Jonathan Greenberg, has posted various informative videos and links on leaf blower use at www.tv1.com/vlogs/167/posts/246.
During the hour and a half that it took me to drive back from Orinda to my Sebastopol farm, I recalled the beginning of a similar group about a decade ago—No Spray. That group managed to prevent the powerful wine industry from spraying homes and land against the glassy-winged sharpshooter pest without owner’s permissions.
The early days of the campaign against the hazards of second-hand cigarette smoke also came to mind. Though this idea was originally dismissed, laws eventually were passed against such deadly smoke. No one has the right to blow hazardous smoke into our faces, or hazardous toxins into our common air and our ears.
People certainly have the right to make a fist, but they do not have the right to put it in someone’s face.
The Orinda Summit may have been the birthplace of a national movement that will struggle against one machine, the leaf blower, and probably expand its restriction beyond the dozens of California cities and hundreds of U.S. cities that already restrict its use, dating back to Carmel in l975.
Broom and rake, don’t blow!
Shepherd Bliss has run an organic farm in Northern California since l992 and currently also teaches at Sonoma State University. He can be reached at [email protected].